Henri Arundel has a deep expression on his face. A sign of nerves sitting in the empty bar at the training ground of the London Irish. “I’ve never really done a proper interview before,” he says, rubbing his floppy hair as he constantly makes headlines.
He takes a curious look at the cameraman set up for a photoshoot, before quickly conversing about Rugby’s success story of the year. We begin in 2002, when he was born at the Eastern Sovereign Military Base in Cyprus.
“My mother was a nurse in the army and my father was a colonel in the rifles,” says the 19-year-old. ‘I was born in Dhekelia, old man’ RAF The base which is now closed, and I lived there for two years. my dad visited Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, I lived in Cyprus for two years and then we moved a little because of my father’s postings: Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, America. It was great, moving around a lot, experiencing different places.’
Henri Arundel recently signed a long-term contract extension with London Irish to continue his growing career with the club
Naturally, military life deteriorated. Arundel was a disciplined academic, achieved straight like his A-levels last year, and sparked an interest in modern warfare. Twelve months ago, he nearly moved back to America to study history at Yale University on a prestigious scholarship.
Arundel says: ‘At school, we studied Northern Ireland and the Anglo-Irish War. My father was in the grip of that. It has always been interesting to talk to him about why things happen around the world.
‘I don’t want to be a historian or work in a museum, but I’ve always been interested. You don’t want to focus too much on just rugby and watching BBC Sport all the time. You can’t spend all your time watching highlight reels on the internet. Sometimes you just need to branch out on BBC News!
The young full back was part of Eddie Jones’s pre-Australia warm-up squad this late spring
‘I am mostly interested in modern history and its political side; War of the 20th Century, Cold War. Why are conflicts happening and its geopolitical aspect. If I hadn’t had this opportunity with the London Irish, I would have had some discussion about opportunities at Yale. There was a rugby scholarship. Rugby is developing in America so they wanted the players to go ahead and I would have done a great job in history.
America’s loss has been England’s gain. Arundel’s name is yet to appear on Wikipedia, but he is still in line to become the country’s main debutant against the barbarians at Twickenham next week. He has stunned the game with his brilliant individual efforts, drawing comparisons with All Blacks legend Christian Cullen for his effortless running style.
‘That fun, running rugby is the exciting part for me,’ says Arundel. Everyone loves the X-Factor. People mention Christian Cullen and Jason Robinson. He is the best running full-back ever. Players who made people hold their breath and thought, “What are they going to do next?” You see it in the NFL. I like to watch running backs and wide receivers. You watch his highlights on YouTube and he was absolutely eccentric.
Henri Arundel has earned himself a national identity this season with the London Irish
‘I’ve always wanted to get the ball, see what I can do, what steps I can take. I, like Quaid Cooper, look at the best moves in rugby – and try to replicate them. I’ve always enjoyed the footwork and speed.
‘When my family settled in Bath, we had season tickets at Rec. I was at Beachon Cliff School and I was all set to play for Bath. I saw people like George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson. Outside of Bath, it was Mike Brown, Israel Dagg and William Ryder. I will always be watching their highlight reels.
The dream of playing for Bath was soon dashed. When Arundel’s father retired from the military, he took a job as the Director of Operations at Harrow School. The school awarded Arundale a scholarship, meaning he fell into the London Irish catchment.
Henri Arundel (front right) Field effort of incredible length earned him national recognition
He became a keen track and field athlete – running the 100 meters in 11 seconds at just 16 years old – and is now competing with Adam Radwan to become the fastest player in English rugby.
‘I did track and field in summer school. Cricket was too slow for me. I tried but I couldn’t fake it. I did 100m, 200m, long jump, shot put. You’ll see people like Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson working on technology.
I wouldn’t say my technique is incredible now but you build muscle memory out of athletics stuff. Now there is no point in rugby players running 100 meters because you rarely do that in any sport. More recently I’ve been hitting 10.5 meters per second.
how i tried to break the internet
I’ve looked back on that now! phipsy [scrum-half Nick Phipps] was running back to get the ball and I was calling him because he was under a lot of pressure [Gabin] Villiere.
When I got the ball, I looked up and there were only a few players in front of me. I was thinking, ‘Where is everyone?’ There was a big gap outside a forward and I was thinking I could go around that easily. I put my head down, noticed a gap and then thought I’d just keep going and try and avoid people on my right and people on my left.
As I walked towards the halfway point, I saw No. 9 and No. 15 and thought I couldn’t step inside because there would be cover on the inside. I basically tried to overtake number 9 and put 15 off-balance.
I kept my eyes ahead to try and sell that I would keep going straight while keeping the number 9 in my peripheral, and then cut off at the last minute.
All this time I was thinking, ‘Well, I’ve run too far here!’ But I felt refreshed as soon as I got off the bench. There’s a lot of adrenaline going on because there’s a rush and your partner is going to be psychic. It came down to a foot race.
15’s bump was the same as mine, so he’ll contact me if I keep going. I hesitantly took him off my feet so that I could examine him a little. At that point it’s just easy. After that I knew I wasn’t going to get caught, so I kept going, dive early because it was a wet day so I knew I was going to slip away.
Blessed with a natural X-factor, Arundel signed his first contract at London Irish early in his final year at school. He turned down an offer to study history at UCL and did not look back. On Friday he signed a long-term contract extension with the club, ending a whirlwind week in which he was named the league’s breakthrough player of the season.
‘I didn’t expect anything on the level of what has happened this season. Twelve months ago I was in bed recovering from hamstring surgery. My main goal was to make England under 20 and maybe play a few matches for the Irish. There was a bit of a stir on social media after our U-20 match against Scotland and I was thinking, “Wow, this really happened.”
‘it was very nice. I got a call from our academy manager on the plane back from Scotland that the first team wanted me for next weekend’s game, so they were going to kick me out of camp. That’s when things seemed to move fast.
‘Learned a lot. I had games that I didn’t want to do. The coaches gave me the praise I needed but they told me there was more work to be done. I’m only speaking from its first season, but things can go wrong as soon as you start to settle on “oh great, I tried one.” Any arrogance is quickly detected, especially in rugby culture.
‘I’ve been with the Irish since I was 15 and signing a new contract was a very easy decision. Other clubs were messaging my agent but it was hardly a point I considered moving on.
‘The Irish sport rugby that suits me; It’s not a ball and a kick. We want to attack from everywhere. The fun of playing rugby is exactly what I want to play.
After receiving a call from Gregor Townsend, Arundel can beg to go to Scotland. His mother’s mother – maiden name MacLennan – was born north of the border, while his father was born in Wales. Both countries came looking for his services, but Arundel has opted to team up with Eddie Jones and England this summer.
‘I was nervous going to camp but Eddie told me to enjoy it. I am only 19 years old so there is no pressure on me to force or come directly to the team. I just have to keep learning because I am far from where I want to be as a player. It’s a little surreal talking to big guys like Anthony Watson, who you’ve seen on TV, and I’ll see how it goes.’
Henri Arundel (above – Crossing Against the Wasp) earned himself national recognition with a surprise effort against Toulon
If his rise continues at the same pace, Arundel could be a part of England’s World Cup campaign in 2023. Time will tell.
‘I’ve had a notebook since I was 10 years old and I take it with me to every game. It’s a little dog-eared because I’ve had it for years. I wrote down every stage I wanted to reach: playing at the Harrow Festival at the age of 15, playing at the Wellington Festival at the age of 16, playing by age in England, playing the 2027 World Cup and the Lions Tour Go on It’s not that if I don’t do it, I’ll get fed up, but it reminds me why I started.
As he continues to pursue his childhood dreams, one by one, he may find that some come sooner than expected.